Four common challenges that military kids face … and what parents can do to help
If you grew up in a military family, you know that many of the challenges you faced were different than those of your civilian friends. While there are many positive elements of growing up in a military family, being a military kid means always having to adjust and adapt to an array of changes, and that’s not an easy task! Below are four of the top challenges that our military kids face, some common difficulties kids experience as a reaction to those challenges, and some tips to help your children through them.
- Family Separations
For most families in the United States, long separations between children and their parents are rare – unless you are a military family. Deployments make 9-12-month separations from a parent quite common. Shorter separations, usually around 1 month, are even more common, as many service members must often travel for trainings and military-related educational programs. These separations bring a mix of complex emotions for everyone in the family. For example, even in the midst of feeling sad or anxious about the separation, family members may also feel pride for their service member.
No matter what, these separations are stressful, especially for the youngest members of our force – military children. Children may respond to this stress in different ways. A child of a deployed or recently returned service member may experience increased worry about the safety of their parent or anxiety when separated from either of their parents. Other children may act out or become more oppositional as they struggle with feelings of anger at having to be separated from their parent. Children may also struggle with chronic sadness or depression due to missing their deployed parent. Lastly, previously acquired developmental milestones, such as using the potty, sleeping through the night, or talking in sentences, may temporarily back-track.
Though each child's reaction to stress is unique, we know that children of deployed parents are at an increased risk for these difficulties when compared with military children whose parents did not deploy1. However, there are steps you can take to help prepare your child for a deployment, support them during the deployment, and reconnect with their deployed parent post-deployment. Check in with your child’s doctor and seek support if you suspect your child might be struggling with a deployment or separation.
- More Responsibilities
Military-related separations often come with a shift in family roles and responsibilities. Tasks and responsibilities held by the service-member parent must be delegated while they are deployed. Much of the time, this means that the home-front parents take on parenting “double-duty.” However, school-aged and adolescent children often experience an increase in responsibility too. They may have more household chores or more obligations in looking after their younger siblings.
While not inherently “bad,” a sudden spike in responsibility is stressful for anyone, especially children who are still learning about how to be responsible for tasks. Too much responsibility, especially for things above what would typically be expected for their age, can cause a child to feel undue pressure, anxiety, or resentment. It’s important to help your child prepare for any shifts in responsibilities and not ask your child to do anything that is above what would be developmentally expected of them. Let your child know that you are there to support them and that they can always tell you if they are feeling overwhelmed.
- Frequent Moves
Military life means moving a lot. Anyone who has experienced a move knows how stressful it is. And, with each move comes many transitions. Moving means not only a new home but also new neighbors, new classmates, new teachers, a new classroom, new sports teams, and the list goes on. Adapting to new people, places, and things is hard for everyone, and children can face various challenges as they work hard to adjust to their new surroundings.
Because schools teach content at different paces and with different teaching styles, a child may enter a classroom where they are expected to already know content they haven’t been taught yet. This is especially challenging for children who learn differently or have special needs. Frequent classroom changes do not give a teacher time to understand how a child learns best. This can lead to difficulty keeping up with homework, school anxiety, or negative impacts on self-esteem.
Frequent moves can also make it difficult to build and maintain friendships and social groups. Always having to “put yourself out there” and get to know new people is tiring, especially if you know another move will be on the horizon which means starting over again. This can leave military children feeling lonely or socially isolated.
If you are anticipating a move, connect with your child’s new school and community, if possible. Make them aware of any special needs, and advocate for getting support with the transition. Talk with your child before the move to help them prepare, build a support system, and check in with them frequently in the months after the move. It is important to help your child know that it’s okay to feel nervous or scared, and that you are there to help them through the tough parts.
- Grief and Loss
Moving means not only adjusting to new things, but also having to leave things behind – best friends, favorite teachers, excellent soccer coach, and more. You may even notice your children struggling to leave behind things that surprise you, such as a particular tree in your back yard, or their favorite space in your home. It is natural for humans to connect and bond to our environment and to experience sadness and grief when we leave them behind. This is even more true for children because they are developmentally primed to grow strong attachments for comfort and safety. This means that frequent moving comes not only with stress of readjustment, but also with feelings of sadness and grieving.
Feelings of grief and loss can also occur if a parent returns from a deployment with a significant emotional or physical injury as a child must adjust to a parent no longer being able to do what they could do before. You can help your child understand and process their grief by encouraging them to share their feelings and letting them know it’s normal to feel sad. You can also help your child to brainstorm creative ways to maintain connections with loved ones living far away by using technology such as video chatting, sending pictures, and videos.
If you believe your child is struggling with these challenges, use whatever support is available to you, such as a therapist. Being a military child comes with unique challenges, and yet there are many things parents and professionals can do to support their child through stressful times.
For more ways to help your military child thrive, download our free handbook “A Battle Plan for Military Children’s Mental Wellness.” It’s a great place to find help in creating a solid, stable household in which military children can thrive.
Vanessa Jacoby, PhD
Vanessa Jacoby, PhD, is an Assistant Professor and Licensed Clinical Psychologist with a child specialization in the Division of Behavioral Medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center. She is member of the STRONG STAR Multidisciplinary Research Consortium and the Consortium to Alleviate PTSD, whose mission is to alleviate and prevent posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other deployment related problems in active duty service members and their families. In her work at STRONG STAR, Dr. Jacoby conducts prevention and supportive programs with military families with young children experiencing deployment.
The opinions, representations and statements made within this guest article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of One in Five Minds or Clarity Child Guidance Center. Any copyright remains with the author and any liability with regard to infringement of intellectual property rights remain with them. One in Five Minds and Clarity Child Guidance Center accepts no liability for any errors, omissions or representations.
- Mansfield, A. J., Kaufman, J. S., Engel, C. C., & Gaynes, B. N. (2011). Deployment and mental health diagnoses among children of US Army personnel. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 11, 999-1005.